When I saw on Facebook that there was a biography about Helen Forrester’s life, I jumped at the chance to review the book. It’s hard to explain what an influence she had on my reading and writing life. It was really only when I saw this new book that I thought about it and realised the impact she’d had.
I was always a reader – introduced to books by my best friend. We passed each other copies of books we loved and still to this day, make recommendations to each other that we know we’ll enjoy. We went through many phases; Sweet Valley Twins, Judy Blume, everything set in World War 2 and later contemporary books like We Need to Talk About Kevin and Longbourn.
In the middle part of our book life – our teens, we picked up anything historical that tickled our fancy, and one of these books for me, was Twopence to Cross the Mersey by Helen Forrester. I devoured the book and scenes from it still stick in my mind today. Her depictions of a family fallen from grace, into desperate poverty during the depression in 1930s Liverpool and the cruelty she suffered at the hands of her parents were almost hard to believe. But, they were true accounts and they made for compelling reading.
I finished Twopence and returned to the library again and again until I had everything by Helen Forrester read on the shelf. (A true little Matilda).
Because of the books I’d read, which depicted Helen’s teenage life up to her early 20s, I had expected to be revisiting these years in the biography Passage Across the Mersey. However the book picks up after these years, from her later twenties into her thirties and follows her romance with her husband to be Avadh Bhatia.
The biography is told through the many letters Helen wrote to Avadh as they arranged their new life in India. They are first hand accounts and we watch a true love story unfold, depicted through Helen’s beautiful writing style and way with words. She, as in her earlier memoir books, comes across as strong, determined and steely minded and it’s no surprise that she goes on to overcome great obstacles in her quest for a happy life.
I enjoyed the biography and finding out what happened to Helen. As a writer, I love to learn how other writers do it – how she eventually secured her book deal, and how an offhand comment led to her writing her wonderful memoir manuscripts.
She went on to write 11 fiction books, alongside her four autobiographical books and since reading this book I intend on reading more of her material that I didn’t actually know was out there.
If I was to be brutally honest, I would have liked to have read more about other parts of Helen’s life, as the book mainly concentrates on her establishment of her journey to her new life in India, which is a relatively short time frame. It is written this way because there is so much material to work with (the letters survived), whereas other parts of her life are skimmed over, because the letters of her thoughts and words don’t exist or were destroyed. I would have liked to have heard more from Robert about the later parts of her life, particularly as her books came to be so successful.
Still I was very happy to read about what happened to the woman who had such an impact on my teenhood, to read that she did go on to have a fulfilling, happy and successful life and to understand the legacy she left behind.
As I now write my own historical fiction, I find myself time and time again writing scenes that are reflective of what I read in Helen’s books when I was young. Her writing was so vivid, her characters so real and at times cruel, that I cannot forget. In fact, I have to check myself sometimes, as I find storylines appearing that were in fact Helen’s story or parts of stories that happened to her.
If you too enjoyed and continue to enjoy her writing then you should read Passage Across The Mersey. If anything, it will take you back and perhaps spur you on to revisit her many, wonderful books.
With thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy of this book.